Running and environment.

A young London runner talks about a sharpened sense of how running and environment connect at the moment. First we talked on film and then transcribed the text below.

VS We’re talking about running and environment. And so I just wondered if we could have an overall view at the start about what you feel is the impact of environment on your running practice?

Clio Oh, that’s quite a big one. Well, I think it’s probably one of the main reasons that I run so much is to be outside and to be experiencing the environment. I find it really difficult to run on a treadmill or to run inside so it’s for me just being outside and seeing the environment. Experiencing the world around me is a huge part of why I run, and I just never get bored of it.

VS Well that’s interesting because a lot of people do just go to the gym and run on a treadmill, don’t they, just to get access to exercise?

Clio. Yes. But I’ve always struggled with that type of running, and actually for me it extends beyond that. For example, I never run with music on. I never run with my phone or with any kind of distraction at all and I haven’t done for years and years. I just like to be completely focused on what’s around me and what’s outside. Lots of people prefer to kind of close out the distractions in the environment and have something else to focus on. But I really don’t like that – I find it more difficult to run!

‘it is different at the moment because the streets are much quieter but the parks are busier’

Running and environment People running in London park

VS Yes, I often see people running with headphones on. And it’s their time to listen to a podcast or I don’t know what they’re doing. But still, it’s not about experiencing the environment fully. So it’s interesting that you do. And what about your starting point, which I guess is in London, normally?
What do you feel is the experience of the London environment on runners? What do you think?

Clio I think it’s different for different people. I’m quite lucky because I live near quite a few big parks. There’s so many different little things to talk about around running in London. I think it’s really different at the moment because the streets are so much quieter than usual, but the parks are much busier.

So, I think for everyone that runs in London – it used to be that you would try and get off the streets as soon as possible. Because the busy running times are commuting times. There are lots of people that run, go to and from work or run just before or just after work.

So a feature of running in London used to be that you’d be dodging people and on and off the pavement and weaving through huge crowds. In that situation a lot of what you’d experience in terms of the urban environment would be the people that are there with you. There’s a sense of shared space. Whereas that’s really changed now. And recently a lot of friends have started running a lot more on roads rather than in parks, because now parks are where all the people are. And I think that’s been quite an interesting shift.

VS Yes, very interesting. Very interesting. So let’s talk now about your personal experience of running. What’s your favourite time to go running?

Clio I run in the mornings, so I just get up and run. I’ll get up and have a cup of tea and then 10 minutes later, I’m out the door. And I’ve always much preferred running in the mornings, and I still go quite early, even though my schedule is a bit more flexible at the moment. I think part of the reason for that is environmental. Throughout the year, the mornings are when you really notice the changes in the natural environment, and the changing light, the changing weather. I just find it’s a really good way to start the day to get a bit of a bit of space around you.

VS. Is it a kind of relentless habit you get out every single morning no matter what the weather’s like?

Clio Pretty much. I do have rest days. So I don’t go every single day. But I usually know that ahead. I sort of have a bit of a plan in my head about which days in each week I’m going to run. You know, if I have to work early on one day, then I’ll make sure that that’s one of my rest days. If the weather forecast looks really, really bad, then again, I’ll kind of plan my week so that I’m not gonna try and run on that day.

But for the most part, I actually find it easier to go out and run early in the winter months. I know it sounds a little bit strange, but it’s because I just enjoy it so much. I live in quite a small flat and quite small space. And so getting up in the winter months without feeling like I’m going to go up and do something – it’s a little bit demotivating. Because otherwise I’m just gonna sit in my cold flat! Whereas getting up to run, it’s just feels like fun.

‘It’s really windy today and that’s when I find it most difficult to run’

VS To me there must be a sort of health and safety factor though in terms of you know, when the roads are wet or icy. There’ll be times when you will pretty much be prevented from running

Clio Yes, I think the only real problem is snow and ice. Again, I’m quite lucky that I’ve got enough parks and well maintained pavement and things nearby that I can run when it’s quite cold and icy. And when it’s really muddy, again, you can work around it a little bit. And so, yeah, it’s just when it’s really deep snow. I find, for me the most annoying condition is wind. So it’s really windy today. And that’s when I find it the most difficult to run.

VS Is that because you’re running into either into the wind and it’s difficult to breathe?

Clio Exactly. Yeah, it really does hold you back and it does make a difference how kind of big you are. I have got a friend who’s a runner who’s got a much bigger broader frame than me. And he has no problem at all running in the wind, whereas I’m not exactly small but it definitely knocks me around a lot more.

‘when you are out in the morning you can hear the woodpeckers…’

Running and environment Path for run in London

VS So, can you say a bit more about the surroundings things you notice. Do you notice things?

Clio The first thing I really tuned into is sunrise times. So the changing light in the mornings and especially the first three or four months of the year, you really see the changes. It gradually gets lighter in the morning. Then once the clocks change and go forward for spring – actually then it gets darker again. And then you through the getting lighter again. So I that’s something that I always notice. Also, again at this time of year: the trees coming into leaf and less so in the Autumn – the trees dying back.

And then there are certain birds and animals that I notice around, and this is again mostly when running in the parks. But there’s one park I run in, for the past six weeks or so, I can hear the woodpeckers. That’s quite nice and it’s fun trying to guess which tree they’re in (I can never see them!)

And then I guess the other thing, is you notice more – or less – people. That changes at the time of year, the time of day, and the time of week. Later on as the week goes, it gets busier. So Thursday and Friday are the busy days where, I know, I’ll see quite a few people out on the paths, walking dogs and that kind of thing. Whereas earlier in the week, sometimes I’ll run, and I’ll see maybe two or three people. It’s very quiet, even in the middle of London.

VS. Interesting. Why do you think that is? Does it just take most of the week for people to get going?

Clio. I think so. And yeah, I think it’s to do with people’s routines.

‘I really like the canal and river paths as they are good long flat runs’

Running and environment Clio Heslop Canal run view

VS So, given that things are different at the moment, but otherwise do you actively seek landscape on your run? Or do you like a variety of urban and landscape? What’s your favourite terrain?

Clio. I try to change things a little bit. I do like variety. My favourite routes are the ones which are out in the landscape and out in a less urban environment. But actually, the thing that I like to vary is the terrain. So I have some runs that are quite flat some that are quite hilly. And the length of run – and so most of my routes fit around that. So I’ve got some that are long and flat and those tend to be quite urban routes. And then some that are long and hilly, and those are kind of a mix. Then, some that are short and hilly, which is mostly just in parks. That’s the main way that in my head I kind of categorise or organise.

And, I really like running along the canal and river paths in London as well. Those are good long flat runs. A good friend of mine and I have been doing those routes together for a really long time. She and I tend to meet either on the Thames, or the London canals, and to spend an hour half or two hours just running along and then back. They are nice because they are flat and scenic. And not too busy usually, if you get there at a good time.
Those are the kind of things as well most of the routes

VS And do you choose which one of those because of the type of exercise you want or is it more about an overall experience ?

Clio. Yeah. It is mostly about what my legs feel like and what I can handle, but also what else I’ve got on. So if I have tired legs I won’t do one of the hilly routes. I’ll do one of the flatter ones. And, if I don’t have much time, then I’ll just do quite a short run in the park. And so that tends to be it. But yeah, it does vary. On the weekends when I’ve got a bit of extra time then maybe I’ll think a little bit more about the kind of environment I want around me.

Running and environment Clio Heslop canal view

‘It’s undeniable how clear the air seems in London at the moment’

VS. So, yeah, let’s talk a bit more about maybe what’s different now. Have you noticed any effects of, for example, less pollution at the moment?

Clio. Yeah, I really, really really have. And I thought it was in my head at first but it’s undeniable how clear the air seems in London at the moment. Two of the routes that I do the most regularly both go up hills that have vantage points across the whole city. I’m used to being able to see across London, but I’ve just never known it so clear.

And I think the other thing is, with having way fewer flights going overhead, so you really notice the lack of trails in the sky from planes. The other thing is just the amount of greenery and blossom . Flowers just seems to be everywhere you go. Even on the streets, so the trees that line the streets – I’ve never known them so full of flowers

VS. it is, it’s remarkable. And it seems to be absolutely everywhere. And it makes you wonder if that’s pollution or something else? It must be something else as well. Because there wasn’t time for a whole season to develop a new way of blossoming. But it is quite astonishing this year.
So, I was sent this morning an amazing Instagram post by one of our GroundJewellers, of the skies over Barcelona. And the colours. I think she’s taken dawn pictures. Or they may have been sunset. Anyway, absolutely incredible clarity, and drama. I mean, Barcelona skies are particularly good anyway, but certainly the extra clarity from lack of pollution is quite astonishing.
So what about the sorts of hindrances you might experience? And maybe think overall – not just for now – what are the sort of things that interrupt your runs. Are there recurrent themes there?

Running and environment Running in the park London

Clio. Not really environmentally, I think. Sometimes weather is a bit of a factor, but usually, it’s more to do with my mood or my tiredness or something like that.
I always try and go out, but then sometimes I’ll cut a run short if I’m just not really feeling it. Or I’ll have a message from a friend or something like that, and I had been planning to run and I’ll just think, “oh, maybe not today, maybe I’ll go and do that other thing”
But no, for the most part, I have kept up fairly regular running for a number of years. As I say, I’m quite lucky that even if I know the paths are going to be muddy or icy or whatever, then I can plan a bit of a different route around.

VS And do you think, given that there are a lot of runners around – do you get a sense that there are more runners than cyclists? Or what’s the number of runners compared with cyclists and drivers?

Clio. Again, it’s quite hard to know. No, I think probably probably more runners than cyclists. But it’s difficult because most of the cyclists that I encounter are commuting. Whereas I think most of the runners that I see are doing it for fitness. I think there are quite a lot of cyclists around London, obviously, but it’s hard to know how many of them are commuter cyclists and how many of them do it for sport.

‘The diversity of people who run has really changed a lot over the last few years’

VS. Yeah, well, presumably commuting cycling is going to be encouraged from now, I think we’ve already had that announced

Clio. But I think one thing that I do definitely notice is that the diversity of people that run has really changed a lot over the last few years. And to an extent with cycling as well, but definitely with running. You see a lot more older people running than I used to. And more all kind of mixed groups and actually more groups of runners.

So , it used to be very much that you’d see one or two men aged between say, 20 and 40 running together. And those were the other runners you’d encounter – you wouldn’t see many other people outside of that kind of demographic profile. Whereas now, it’s much, much more varied. And especially if you go to things like Park Run, which obviously isn’t happening at the moment, but you see a huge section of different people and families running together. Including a lot more younger women. I think, again, things like things like the Cancer Research Race for Life initiatives that have really targeted, particular groups of people to get them into running, have started to make a big difference.

Running and environment Clio Heslop and friend after a run

‘There are so many kinds of social and structural factors that determine whether or not you run’

VS. Very interesting. So do you think that we need some sort of policy about running? Do you think there needs to be, I don’t know, incentives to get people running? Is it something that should be encouraged? Officially?

Clio. I think it sort of is as much as it can be. I know a lot of people that have used for example, things like Couch to 5K to get them started.
And then beyond that, I think there are so many kinds of social and structural factors that determine whether or not you run. So like I say, I’m quite privileged in that, number one: I’ve run for a long time and I’ve enjoyed it. But I’m relatively healthy. And I have a job that is fairly regular and doesn’t make me so completely exhausted. It’s not shift-work or anything like that. It means that I can plan when I want to run And I live somewhere with good access to places to run.

So I think all of that makes a huge difference for a lot of people. And that, you know, there are government-led initiatives that try to encourage people. Like I say the NHS’s Couch to 5k is the most well known one that takes you through from not having run before to being able to run consistently for 30 to 40 minutes. I think people will do that. But becoming a regular runner is an extra step.

VS. Yeah, I guess I was partly thinking, you know, like we have skateboard parks or cycle paths, you know. Should there be priority running areas
that could signal that ‘this is a special place for running’ – and might give people the variety of terrain and some up hill and some flat, and some hard and some soft surface, and all that. Those sorts of things you’ve talked about.

Clio. Yeah, definitely actually it would be nice to see a little bit more in the way of how footpaths are indicated and things like that, to have a few more officially recognised routes. But I think organised runs do a little bit for that. Things like London Marathon – I think people run little sections of that throughout the year. And really most of that culture is built for quite serious runners.

So for example, there’s an app called Strava that a lot of people use, and people can kind of “claim” little bits of route as “segments”. And then the app will record everyone’s time over those segments, and you can see where you rank alongside other people that run it. So, as I say that culture does exist, but at the moment, it’s a little bit limited to the people that are already committed serious runners. Like you wouldn’t walk along the street and know that that section of street is a Strava challenge. So it would be nice to see that a little bit more publicly available.

VS Yeah. Like you get numbered cycle routes.

Clio Exactly. Yes.

VS Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground as it were. And I wonder if there’s anything that you’d like to say that we haven’t covered ? Coming back to thinking about running and the environment – if anything strikes you ? Is there an optimum time or an optimum condition for runners that we could think about? Should we have a national running day or a national running season or something?

‘You really feel like you are getting a completely different sense of the place that you live.’

Clio I don’t know. As I say, it’s really different for everyone, but I think there are the absolute perfect running times that I’ve had. If you are gonna ask me to manufacture it, I could say:

I love going out in the mornings and, and the kind of temperature it is at the moment where it’s kind of mid teens is just perfect. with a slight a little bit of a breeze, but nothing too bad.
And then I really love a misty morning as well. In London you often get it where you can see the mist all across the city. Or there’s a pond that I run by, and you sometimes see the sun burning the water up, and it’s just really atmospheric and really, really beautiful.

That’s when running just feels really magic.
And you really feel like you’re getting a completely different sense of the place that you live.
And yeah, that’s when I connect with it the most, I think.

VS Good. Well, thank you Clio. That was fascinating. and fun to talk about.

Clio Yeah, yeah. Well, let me know if anyone has any other questions….

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